GARDINER — Lizzy Gruber said she wanted to win a championship for Kassidy Collins, the lone senior on the Gardiner girls basketball team.

Gruber made sure the Tigers would be in position. And then Collins brought them that final step.

Gruber scored 24 points, 15 in the second half, Collins hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:12 to play, and No. 1 Gardiner overcame a 17-point deficit in the first half to beat No. 2 Lawrence 56-51 in the championship game of the A/B bracket of the central Maine tournament.

Collins had 13 points for the Tigers (13-2), who lost in the Class A North final last year but who got to cut down and wear the nets this time.

“Honestly, in the beginning of the season, I didn’t think that this was ever going to happen,” Collins said. “It feels incredible. This is exactly what I would have expected (the Class A North title) to feel like. It’s all I ever wanted, pretty much.”

Lawrence (12-3) was led by 24 points from Hope Bouchard, who had 18 points in the first half but was better contained by the Tigers in the second. Makenzie Nadeau added 13 for the Bulldogs and Elizabeth Crommett had seven rebounds.

“I give Gardiner a lot of credit. I don’t even know if they made adjustments, they just came out playing harder in the second half,” Lawrence coach Greg Chesley said. “We kind of punched them in the mouth early, and then they came out in the second half and did the same to us.”

Leading the way was Gruber, who also had 10 of her 15 rebounds in the second half. She took over on both ends, and even got to administer the final blow, a pair of free throws with three seconds left that pushed the game out of reach.

“Going into the second half, everyone had something to lose,” she said. “We went into that, and we knew that we needed that. We needed to bring it together. Our team stepped up and worked together.”

Gardiner coach Mike Gray praised his sophomore center for raising her game when the Tigers needed it.

“She absolutely put us on her back,” he said. “And that changed how they could defend, that opened up some other things. She just was not going to lose this game.”

Gardiner sophomore center Lizzy Gruber shoots as Lawrence teammates Ali Higgins and Elizabeth Crommett defend during the Class A/B central Maine tournament championship game Friday night in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

But the Tigers, who began the season 0-2, were in trouble early, as a blistering shooting performance from the Bulldogs that included six first-half threes — three from Bouchard, two from Ali Higgins (six points) — had Gardiner staring at a 28-11 deficit after a Bouchard three with 4:52 left in the quarter.

The Tigers chipped away, however, with Gruber pouring in nine third-quarter points and Emily Grady hitting a big 3-pointer to cut the deficit to two at 39-37 by the end of the quarter. Gardiner also had a plan for Bouchard, face guarding her to ensure she didn’t get the open space she did in the first half.

“We kept going short shifts, Megan Gallagher and Piper LaVoie on Hope Bouchard,” Gray said. “We were switching them every two or three minutes, back and forth. … I thought they just did a great job of wearing her out and making her earn everything, because Hope played fantastic.”

Gardiner cut the gap to one at 41-40 on a Collins 3-pointer with 6:24 left, and the ball again found the senior — who scored one point in the semifinal victory over Maranacook — for another 3-point attempt, this time for the lead.

It found nothing but net, and Gardiner had its first lead at 49-46. The Tigers didn’t trail again.

“That was incredible,” Collins said. “Sometimes I definitely struggle from outside the arc. The past few games I’ve been having them fall, and to have them fall in a game like this is just, I can’t even explain it. It felt so nice.”

Lawrence didn’t fade away, and after Bouchard hit a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to 53-48, Nadeau knocked down a corner 3-pointer to make it 54-51 with 22.9 seconds left. It eventually fell to Gruber to ice the win, and the 6-foot-4 center calmly knocked down both throws to finish the job.

Waiting for her after the last went through was Collins, who Gray dubbed the “team mom.”

“I turned around, and Kassidy was like ‘We did it!'” Gruber said. “And I started crying. It was just amazing to be able to do that for her, for all of us.”

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